A Look At 'The Weight Of The Nation'
By COSHANDRA DILLARD
A four-part documentary airing on HBO last week examined the consequences and challenges, as well as the implications, of childhood obesity. The series was a collaborative effort between HBO, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institutes of Medicine.
With communitywide efforts happening all over the country, obesity is an issue that has undoubtedly gained everyone's attention, not just those of the medical and public health communities.
"The Weight of the Nation" bluntly told -- and showed -- viewers that Americans are getting fatter and probably will get fatter if they don't do something now.
Among the many points made is that obesity is no longer a marker of poverty or educational standing. It has been occurring in all socioeconomic levels and affecting adults and children of all backgrounds. All signs point to modern technology that makes life easier and the food industry.
In recent years, many have challenged conventional ideas about health and weight loss, namely science journalist Gary Taubes. He insists, citing his research, that Americans continue to gain weight because of our heavily carbohydrate diet, creating insulin resistance. The key message about weight loss among medical professionals -- eating less and moving more -- has not made us any healthier, Taubes has said.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and featured in the documentary, said during a live online chat last Tuesday:
"There are many different theories about which kind of caloric intake is more likely to result in weight gain, and which kind of dietary restriction would be most successful in weight loss. NIH studies suggest that while there may be short-term differences in these approaches, the long-term results seem not to depend on the details, but on the amount of reduced calories. The best diet is the one that can be sustained over the long term, combined with other healthful lifestyle behaviors."
Children in crisis
Children were certainly a focus during the four-part documentary, and for good reason. Health officials say children born in 2000 have a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes. If black or Hispanic, there's a 1 in 2 chance. In addition, only 10 percent of parents seek medical help for their obese child, according to figures cited in the documentary.
Officials in the film attack the food industry, specifically the advertising of sugary cereals, sugary beverages and energy drinks to children. It also examined the fight to bring healthier foods into school cafeterias and add physical education to daily curriculums. Only three states require its schools to provide daily physical education.
Texas has the sixth-highest rate of childhood obesity and is the 12th-fattest state in the nation. Susan Combs, former Texas comptroller, said the state will incur an additional $30-plus billion in health care costs by 2025.
The crisis is hitting children the hardest and Collins had some commanding words.
"If you were told your child is at risk for cancer, that'd get your attention," Collins said in the documentary. "If your child had some sort of brain disease, that would get your attention. Well, obesity ought to be on that list."
Also, during Tuesday's chat, Collins said obesity is the greatest health threat of our time but with past triumphs, it's possible Americans can turn this around, too. However, it'll take some time.
"We got into this problem over about 40 years, so we can't fix it overnight," he said. "But we have succeeded in other major challenges to our health -- smoking, seat belts, etc. We can do it. But the rate of change in the right direction will depend on all of us, our families, our schools, health care systems, communities, industry, and government leaders."
U.S. health officials recognize that today's obesity problem is a public health issue, as it adds more than $150 billion in health care costs.
Stemming the tide of obesity may mean creating grassroots programs, as pointed out in the documentary. Northeast Texas Public Health District director George Roberts is pleased there is much talk about obesity and that cities are coming together to address it.
"I'm actually happy to see the awareness because before you can tackle the problem, you have to know what the problem is," Roberts said. "As people become more and more aware of the problem they're asking, 'What can I do in my own life?'"
Although there are awareness campaigns that identify the causes and consequences of obesity, it's much easier said than done when it comes to weight loss. Roberts pointed to a policy issue -- the way Americans eat.
"From a food standpoint, we're seeing, as a society, that the unhealthy food is the cheaper option," he said.
The Fit City Challenge is going on two years. Roberts and other members of the Fit City Coalition not only have set out to promote changes in Tylerites but are influencing how other cities approach health living initiatives.
"When we created the Fit City Challenge, we didn't quite dream we'd reach the point where we are now," Roberts said. "We wanted to try to get people excited and try to get people to take action.
Excited they are. Residents in surrounding areas are creating their own challenges and programs to address obesity locally. The health district will take some of the messages of Fit City to Smith, Van Zandt and Wood counties as part of a grant they received earlier this year.
"We'll continue to work in other counties, but we're just getting started in on our own community. There's still a lot to be done here," Roberts said.
By the numbers
About 35 percent of Americans are obese.
Obesity is a significant contributing factor for five out of the 10 leading cause of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease.
More than 36 percent of Americans have cardiovascular disease.
Diabetes may contribute to more than 40 percent of deaths in the U.S. each year.
As many as 25 percent of Americans have excess fat in their liver.
The U.S. spends an estimated $150 billion annually on the consequences of obesity. It could be $300 billion by 2018.